Hartwell Estate & rising superstar Benoit

11 years ago by Tim

Hartwell is another Napa powerhouse, making top-notch wine in the Stag's Leap District. The estate is located at the top of a slightly steep hill just off of Silverado Trail, which may be interpreted as being a tad intimidating with their strict appointment only policy and large entrance gate, however the vibe in the winery and tasting room is anything but. Those small hurdles ensure that those who come here care about the wine being poured just as much as those making and selling it do.

Benoit Touquette has been the winemaker at Hartwell since 2006, after working in Bordeaux as well as with famed winemaker, Michel Rolland, at Remhoogte Estate in South Africa. Before we arrived at the tasting room, we tasted the 2007 Estate Cab (then known as Miste Hill) and the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, which were given to us as a housewarming gift by a dear friend of ours from college. Both were excellent.

Hartwell's wine lineup is refreshingly simple - they make Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot, and they do it well. The Cabernet and Sauv Blanc are offered as Estate and Reserve selections, while the Merlot is only offered as an Estate bottling.

The 2011 Sauvignon Blanc is an excellent expression of the varietal, much which may be due to the use of concrete eggs (a growing trend here in the new world). Although concrete has been used in winemaking since the 19th century, it is a relatively new trend in new world winemaking. The egg shape's lack of corners provides better uniformity of the liquid's composition and helps it maintain a more constant temperature. The eggs act very much like oak barrels in creating texture but without imparting vanillan, spice, etc. They preserve fruit flavors and aromas like stainless does, however the process is also less reductive than stainless steel, which can produce wines that are crisp, but lack the complexity and body of traditional wines. The end result is wonderful - a full-bodied, but crisp, wine. I actually preferred the less expensive Estate ($35) bottling over the Reserve ($70), the latter of which is made from the Sauvignon Musque clone and had more of a tropical fruit element, which did not sit as well on my palate.

While the Sauvignon Blancs are phenominal, the real stars here are the Cabernets. These aren't cheap by any definition, but they are arguably worth the price of admission. The shaker sorting The 2009 Estate Cabernet ($55) is meant to be more approachable in its youth, while the Reserve ($125) is designed to be cellared. Of course, that's not to say that the Reserve isn't a beautiful wine now, or that the Estate won't have a long shelf life itself (more on that below). In addition to the current releases, we also had a chance to taste the 1999 Reserve Cabernet - a wine made "pre Benoit" - a stunning wine as well, perhaps the showstopper of the day.

We were impressed and delighted with our tastings and decided to join the club. When our first shipment arrived back at home, we decided to taste the 2009 Estate Cabernet again with fresh palates. It's an opulent, rich wine - young, but still very approachable.

The nose wasn't super expressive on day one, but certainly opened up on day two. Lots of fruit - think blackberry, boysenberry and cassis. There were no earthy or leathery tones, but this is probably just a factor of the wine's age. Nice acidity and fruit, with a slightly less pronounced tannin than most Cabs.

It's wonderfully made and very balanced - not a silky, smooth and "sexy" wine per se, but given a bit of time, it very well could be. The structure is there. Very well-rounded with a big finish, and no traces of heat on the back-end. Very fruit-driven but no cnady here. I doubt that it'd be mistaken for anything other than Cali Cab, but there's beauty in the restraint here, probably owing to Benoit's training in Bordeaux.

In a bit of an unfair comparison, we drank this alongside a 2005 Husic Cabernet that retails for 2-3 times the price and has had an additional 4 years of bottle age. The Hartwell 2009 Estate Cab was a little overmatched on day one, but by day two it was more than holding its own. We're really looking forward to trying the 1999 and 2007 vintages of the Hartwell Reserve against the Husic in the future, to see how those compare. As far as $40-$60 California Cabs go, the Hartwell Estate definitely shines in this category. With a long decant now, it's on the verge of being an excellent wine. We'd score this a 90-91 now, and are looking forward to revisting this tasting again in 4-5 years.

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